“Every time I thoroughly enjoy something, I feel guilty, like I am stealing pleasure from God. The deeper the pleasure, the stronger the sense of guilt!” These words, and others like them, are what psychiatrists’ couches are often about, namely, false guilt, the inability to enjoy pleasure, gift, and raw unmerited goodness. I am sure that most of us easily resonate with this. It is hard for us to simply enjoy pleasure, especially if it is deep and unmerited, without somehow feeling: “I’ll have to pay for this somehow. I shouldn’t be enjoying this. I don’t deserve this. Somewhere, someone is displeased!”
Invariably when we feel good we end up feeling so guilty about feeling good that we soon wind up not feeling very good at all. That’s a strange irony since more than anything else we want to enjoy the goodness of life and creation. Deep down, all of us know that the best way to thank God for the gift of life is to enjoy it. But enjoyment isn’t easy and it doesn’t follow automatically from the availability of pleasure.
Today we have more opportunity for pleasure – access to the good life, health, food, sex, clothing, comfortable and luxurious housing, recreation, travel – than any previous generation in history. Sadly, we actually enjoy these things very little. Our lives are riddled with guilt and excess is our substitute for enjoyment. Why is this? What lies behind this sense of guilt, this inability to enjoy, this neurosis? Why, when more than anything else we crave raw unmerited goodness, do we feel guilty when we attain even a small taste of it? Why can we not luxuriate in gift? Many answers have been proposed: Original sin has flawed us.
We have been badly socialized so that we know how to accept the bad, insults and adversity, but not how to receive the good. We have been too strongly influenced by Augustine and Stoic philosophers who have engrained in our common sense that somehow what hurts is better for you. There is some truth in all of these suggestions, but the root of this neurosis lies deeper.
Simply put, we feel guilty when we have lost the practice of sacrifice in our lives. Sacrifice is what can set us free from false guilt. What is meant here? What is sacrifice?
The word is used in many ways: As a child, I thought I was making sacrifices when I gave up things for Lent, or when I gave money to the missions, or when I gave up time I would rather have spent playing in order to help out somewhere. Parents speak of making sacrifices for their children. Wives speak of sacrificing careers for their families. The Bible speaks of sacrificing grain and cattle as burnt offerings to God…and it speaks of Jesus as sacrificing his life for us. Is there anything common to all of these? Giving. The common element is gift. Sacrifice is giving something up. It is giving something away, not in an attempt to change the way God feels about us, but in an attempt to change the way we feel.
The biblical story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is helpful in illustrating this: The story tells us that God asks Abraham to take his only son, Isaac, his most precious love and the one upon whom the future depends, up a mountain and to sacrifice him by killing him and burning his body. Abraham, we are told, complies and sets out with Isaac ascending the mountain towards the place of sacrifice. At the last moment, God intervenes and stops the sacrifice. He gives Isaac back to Abraham and asks instead for a male animal as a substitute. Abraham and Isaac make the a cir way back down the mountain. But something has been fundamentally changed.
What has changed? Has Abraham passed some arbitrary, but radical, test of faith and is now happy because he has come through and put his money where his mouth is? No. Abraham is fundamentally changed, not because he has passed some test of faith, but because he now has his son, Isaac, in a way that he never had him before. He now has Isaac without guilt, as pure gift. By sacrificing him, Abraham has him regiven to him in a fuller way.
What transpired in the sacrifice was this: By symbolizing giving Isaac away and having him returned, Abraham recognized more fully that Isaac was gift. Isaac was his, not by right, but by divine right. His willingness to sacrifice Isaac was a response to a sense of being indebted (and this is the sense that we generally confuse with a feeling of guilt). He felt that he owed God, and he did owe God, because God had gifted him with a son. His attempt to give Isaac back was a recognition of that indebtedness. Obviously God stops such sacrifices.
God does not want gifts returned. But the act of symbolically giving back accomplishes something. It does not pay off, or attempt to pay off, a bad debt (“You owe because you have been so gifted”). Rather through sacrifice one accepts that debt is unpayable, that gift is precisely gift, and that goodness and love unmerited. Our sense of guilt stems from our sense of indebtedness. We are indebted…since all we are and have is gift. When we give away – life, time, money, love – we recognize that, we accept that debt is unpayable and that all is gift, and we begin to free ourselves from the sense of guilt.